Overcoming Your Investing Biases

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A personal story of massive loss … the biggest danger to investors, year-in-year-out … identifying toxic investment biases

On the list of “Jeff’s worst investing mistakes,” a handful stand out as especially painful.

One of them involved Nokia, a darling of the Dot-Com bubble.

(A quick side note: Nokia is soaring today as a group of Reddit-investors have targeted the stock along with GameStop and AMC Theaters. Tune into tomorrow’s Digest for all the details on this fascinating story.)

In 2000, I was a young, inexperienced investor, especially susceptible to my broker’s assurances of vast riches through tech stocks — one of which was the world’s biggest cellphone manufacturer, Nokia.

Under his instruction, I bought the Finland-based company in early summer 2000.

The stock meandered up for a couple weeks. Until this …

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Down about 27%.

What do you do?

I’ll tell you what you don’t do …

You don’t listen to a broker who swears that the market doesn’t know what it’s doing, and this drop is nothing more than a great time to double-down (and pay him a commission).

Oh, hindsight …

As the proud owner of a new tranche of Nokia shares, I then watched as the stock staged a rally, recouping some of my losses … only to plunge again, down another 25% from my prior low.

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I wrestled with the question that has haunted scores of investors over the decades — “sell and accept a loss, or hold, hoping for a comeback?”

I knew that protecting the money I had left was the wise choice. But I loathed the idea of locking in a massive loss. It was just too painful.

And so, I chose “hold and hope” … and proceeded to ride Nokia all the way down.

Here’s how that looked over the following few years …

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I begin today’s Digest with this story to underscore an unfortunate truth …

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***Our emotions can make us horrible investors

There’s some comfort in knowing it’s not just me.

Nearly all of us make some terrible decisions. I imagine a few of your own are coming to mind right now.

The reality is that humans aren’t wired to be great investors. The research company, Dalbar, has documented this. In a long-term study that tracked investors from 1986 to 2015, Dalbar found that the average investor’s returns were just 3.66% per year, compared to the S&P 500’s annual return of 10.35%.

That is massive underperformance.

To illustrate just how big, take two $100,000 portfolios, starting in 1986. One will return 3.66%, the other 10.35%.

Come 2015, those portfolios will be worth, respectively, $292,992 and $1,919,420.

It’s no exaggeration that this net-worth differential would have a profound impact on the life of, well, everyone except the ultrarich.

Today, let’s address this underperformance.

Investing legend, Louis Navellier has a special collection of essays called the “Peak Performance Series.” In them, he tackles the psychology behind investing, shining a spotlight on the most common “behavioral finance” blunders that trip us up and result in poor investment returns.

In this Digest, let’s highlight many of these biases so you can begin identifying your own blind spots — and more importantly, start fixing them.

As you read the various biases below, ask yourself to what degree you’ve fallen victim. It’s a great beginning point for smoking out your own personal weaknesses and becoming a better investor.

***Overconfidence Bias

From Louis:

… overconfidence refers to the phenomenon that people’s confidence in their judgments and knowledge is higher than the accuracy of these judgments.

Put more simply, overconfidence blinds you to the reality of your ability and the circumstances around you.

Nearly all of us fall victim to overconfidence. In his essay, Louis gives the example of a Retirement Confidence Survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. It found that two out of three workers are confident they are doing a good job saving for retirement and know how much they will need to save to live comfortably.

But the truth?

Gallery: 9 Stocks Selling at a Discount Right Now (InvestorPlace)

Only 42% have even tried to calculate how much money they will need!

This makes no sense. Without crunching the numbers, how could anyone say they’re doing a good job? They’re making a huge assumption with zero supporting data.

How certain are you that your portfolio is on target to help you reach your financial goals? Is that certainty rooted in cold, hard numbers or a vague sense of confidence?

***The Disposition Effect Bias

Investors tend to cash in gains far too soon and hang onto losers far too long. This is the result of “Disposition Effect Bias.”

I held onto my Nokia stock for way to long (and years ago, sold my Apple stock way too early).

In one study, researchers noted the reality of stock market momentum — basically, stocks that have done well over recent months tend to keep doing well over upcoming months; and stocks that have done poorly over recent months tend to keep doing poorly over upcoming months.

Given this, the rational investor would keep the winners and sell the losers. Of course, we tend to do the opposite due to greed and fear.

As you look at your portfolio today, which “losers” are you still holding?

Which “winners” are you considering selling?

Is your logic for both potential decisions sound?

***Self-Attribution Bias

Louis begins describing this bias by noting how, in post-game interviews with athletes, the winners will often praise their team effort, while the losers will many times blame the officials or something other than taking direct responsibility.

From Louis:

We see this type of thinking a lot in investing. We also have a tendency to congratulate ourselves for our brilliance when we succeed — but blame outside influences for our failures …

In my office, we refer to this as “confusing a bull market for brains.” A potentially fatal side effect of this all-too-human trait is what happens when we get good results from bad decisions: We do the same thing again, usually to a bad outcome.

As you look at your portfolio and your investment decisions, was it truly your expert analysis that led to your winners? And was it really external, out-of-your-hands influences that resulted in your losers?

If you decided to take complete accountability for all outcomes, how would that change your next stock purchase or sale?

***Crowd-Seeking Bias

Louis begins to explain this by calling back to 100,000 B.C.:

… you and your hunter/gatherer tribe are out and about … you see three dozen terrified members of your neighboring tribe running for their lives … Your instincts will tell you to run like the wind. Your instincts will say there’s a good reason three dozen people are running for their lives. It doesn’t matter if you can’t see a saber-toothed tiger or a rival tribe with spears … you just know it’s time to run.

As humans, we have “survival” coded into our DNA. This spills over into our investment choices, think “financial survival.” When we see the crowd taking part in a certain investment, we believe there must be some wisdom in that decision. But is that always the smartest move?

(Anyone watching what’s happening with GameStop’s stock right now?)

From Louis:

There’s an easy way to resist our tendency for crowd-seeking, and it’s to look for buys when a stock has become a bargain. And I don’t just mean “cheap”; I mean a good value.

In other words, look for a company that’s still growing like crazy — in terms of sales, operating margins, and especially earnings. Whenever its stock experiences a sell-off … then that’s a great opportunity.

Do you have a plan like this in place to help you avoid following the herd?

***Present Bias

Present bias is when an investor chooses the “sooner” options between two prospective choices.

When it comes to our money, this typically means we choose the “sooner” pleasure of spending what we have today, versus the “later” option of investing it, being patient, and letting it compound for tomorrow.

From Louis:

Americans would rather spend the money they have now than wait, even though saving it would mean having a comfy, stress-free retirement later …

Of course, this goes far beyond just saving for retirement. In everyday investing, the investor may take their profits in a stock too soon when it grows a little volatile, even though the company’s fundamentals are still perfectly healthy and growing. Or they invest too early because the financial media is hyping the stock up. As a result, they overpay for the stock and are stuck with it when folks lose interest.

One of the best ways to avoid this bias is by adopting a plan. Do you know how much you need to set aside for savings and investment today? How much does that mean is left over for you to spend on everyday purchases right now?

***Recency Bias

Louis begins describing recency bias as follows:

… you certainly understand Recency Bias if you’ve ever had an annual performance review at your job.

Odds are that your supervisor remembers a lot of what you’ve done in the last month but can’t remember work completed nine months ago. As a result, you’re more likely to be judged for the last month, than the last year.

And this same bias is likely affecting your portfolio, too.

We often extrapolate the direction of a stock or an entire market far out into the future, dismissing the potential for it to change directions. Now, while there is some value in momentum investing, blindly adhering to recency bias can result in major portfolio damage. Just think of the Dot-Com investors who believed the tech bubble would continue expanding in 2000/2001.

Are you holding on to certain investments simply because they’ve been climbing recently? If so, is that alone a good enough reason to have them in your portfolio?

***What can we do about these biases?

Well, what do they all have in common?

They involve emotions.

So, what’s one of the best ways to bypass our emotions?

Have a specific plan, rooted in fundamentals, and stick to it regardless of what our emotions are telling us to do.

That’s Louis’ approach:

I’m a numbers guy. Always have been. Since I was a kid, I’ve loved math and I knew that math was the right way to understand the world.

Said another way, I depend on evidence for my decisions.

I depend on an objective set of criteria that signals what I should buy, when I should buy it, and when I should sell and collect the profits.

Is this your approach, or are you closer to “winging it”?

If you’re not sure what this looks like in practice, Louis has been working on a mathematic approach to the markets for years, which he released in a live event last week. It’s called Project Mastermind.

It’s a market strategy that combines technology and data to identify a small subset of stocks that are poised to race higher — with the gains coming in months, not years. If you’d like to learn more, click here.

As we look ahead to what’s in store for us in 2021, we could see the market surge … or collapse. Will you be able to sidestep the associated greed and fear, and make the difficult-yet-wise choice for your wealth?

Whatever you do, beware of your own “Nokia” outcome.

Have a good evening,

Jeff Remsburg

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